Political Science

Here is one of them:

But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement.

Here is another:

By contrast, gay men – even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones – know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.

Here are many more, by Amia Srinivasan, definitely recommended to those of you who are interested, and do note that sex is not like a sandwich.  The piece closes with:

In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

Via S.M.  Here is more about the still massively underrated author.

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

The very very highly rated but still underrated Chris Blattman was in top form, here is the transcript and audio.  We had a chance to do this one when he was in town for a week.  We talked about the problem with cash transfers, violence, child soldiers, charter cities, Rene Girard, how to do an Africa trip, Battlestar Galactica, why Ethiopia is growing rapidly, why civil war has become less common, why Colombia and the New World have been so violent, the mysteries of Botswana, and Chris’s favorite Australian TV show, among other topics, including of course the Chris Blattman production function.  Here is one excerpt:

BLATTMAN: There’s this famous paper on Vietnam veterans in the US where they find that being conscripted into fighting in Vietnam had positive effects on the wages of blacks and negative effects on the wages of whites. The reason was, it was really down to, what was your alternative labor market and training experience in the absence of this war?

We found something similar in Uganda, something eerily familiar, which is that the women economically weren’t so worse off. I wouldn’t say they were better off, but they weren’t necessarily affected adversely in an economic sense — they were adversely affected in other ways 5 or 10 or 15 years down the road — while the men were.

It spoke to just how terrible women’s options were. Being conscripted and abducted to be a rebel wife, to some degree, wasn’t that different than what your marriage opportunities looked like if there wasn’t a war.

For men, it just meant that you were out of the civilian labor market, getting a bunch of skills that had turned out not to be very useful. It was bad for them. A different war, a different context, and a different labor market, and that can switch.

COWEN: How many northern Ugandan child soldiers have you interviewed?

BLATTMAN: A few hundred. At least a couple hundred, maybe more. It depends if you count someone who’s involved for a month versus two years. Certainly, the long, long-term soldiers who were there for many, many years are few, maybe only a couple dozen.

COWEN: Those contacts, those conversations, how have they changed your outlook on life emotionally, intellectually, otherwise?


COWEN: True or false, most humans are bad at violence?

BLATTMAN: I think they learn quickly. Probably they’re bad at first.

COWEN: In the micro evidence on violence, and the more individual-level evidence, and then finally macro evidence — like will there be a civil war? — do you think there’s ultimately an overarching theory that ties these all together? Or are they just separate levels of investigation, where you have empirical results, and they stand somewhat separate, and they’ll always be distinct areas?

How optimistic are you about a grand unified theory of violence?

BLATTMAN: I think these individual, how I react in the moment, fight-or-flight-type mechanisms are quite distinct from the way that small groups or large groups or nations go to war. But once you get beyond that to the level of small groups and larger groups and nations, I see a lot of unity in the theory.

Do read or listen to the whole thing.  By the way, he says the Canadian political system is overrated.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, they chose a nice photo.  Here is an excerpt:

If North Korea and the U.S. simply talk, and nothing comes of it, that raises the status of Kim Jong Un, who then would keep improving his missiles anyway. So if the U.S. goes ahead with the talks, you might rationally infer that the risk of war has gone up. Furthermore, there is the risk that Trump or Kim could feel humiliated by a summit that yielded nothing, again raising the chance of war or miscalculation leading to disaster.

In chess there is a concept known as “zugzwang,” or “compulsion to move.” It’s used to describe the position of a player with no good options who would prefer to do nothing at all. That’s not a possibility in chess, so the unfortunate player faces a situation in which all roads involve a deterioration of his position.

There is much more at the link, only one scenario being even somewhat optimistic.

In this study, we argue that the perceived polarization of Americans along party lines is partially an artifact of the low response rates that characterize contemporary surveys. People who agree to participate in opinion surveys are more informed, involved, and opinionated about the political process and therefore hold stronger, more meaningful, and partisan political attitudes. This motivational discrepancy generates a bias in survey research that may amplify evidence of party polarization in the mass public. We test the association between response rates and measures of polarization using individual-level data from Pew surveys from 2004 to 2014 and American National Election Studies from 1984 to 2012. Our empirical evidence demonstrates a significant decline in unit response that is associated with an increase in the percentage of politically active, partisan, and polarized individuals in these surveys. This produces evidence of dissensus that, on some issues, may be stronger than exists in reality.

That is from a forthcoming piece by Cavari and Freedman in The Journal of Politics.  For the pointer I thank an anonymous correspondent.

And via Nathan, here is a relevant comment.

From Michael Mann:

For over 150 years liberal optimism has dominated theories of war and violence. It has been repeatedly argued that war and violence either are declining or will shortly decline. There have been exceptions, especially in Germany and more generally in the first half of the twentieth century, but there has been a recent revival of such optimism, especially in the work of Azar Gat, John Mueller, Joshua Goldstein, and Steven Pinker who all perceive a long-term decline in war and violence through history, speeding up in the post-1945 period. Critiquing Pinker’s statistics on war fatalities, I show that the overall pattern is not a decline in war, but substantial variation between periods and places. War has not declined and current trends are slightly in the opposite direction. The conventional view is that civil wars in the global South have largely replaced inter-state wars in the North, but this is misleading since there is major involvement in most civil wars by outside powers, including those of the North. There is more support for their view that homicide has declined in the long-term, at least in the North of the world (with the United States lagging somewhat). This is reinforced by technological improvements in long-distance weaponry and the two transformations have shifted war, especially in the North, from being “ferocious” to “callous” in character. This renders war less visible and less central to Northern culture, which has the deceptive appearance of being rather pacific. Viewed from the South the view has been bleaker both in the colonial period and today. Globally war and violence are not declining, but they are being transformed.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit from it:

Imagine a “right-wing” supermarket chain and a “left-wing” alternative. The right-wing chain could offer discounts for NRA members and send money to the Republican Party. The left-wing version might have a commercial relationship with Planned Parenthood, sell more vegan products and take special care to promote women up through the ranks.

Maybe that sounds implausible, but many retailers have already segmented their markets through frequent buyer programs. You get better deals from the companies you patronize regularly, most of all from airlines and hotels. It requires only some stretch of the imagination to think that more of those programs could be organized around ideology. After all, if you are going to be “a Hilton customer” or “a Westin customer,” maybe politics could play a role. You personally don’t have to be very ideological; you simply might accept an ideological division over one that is purely arbitrary. Once in place, the continuing existence of the better deal from your preferred supplier will make this arrangement self-enforcing, just as I keep on flying United because of all my accumulated miles.


Social media accounts tie companies to ideologies more tightly than in the past. Who would have thought Delta Air Lines was a “left-wing” company? Maybe it isn’t really deep down, but it’s all over Facebook and Twitter that the airline revoked a discount for NRA members and just lost a tax break from the state of Georgia. At some point, the company might start acting out a left-wing persona to cultivate their available allies, whether or not it reflects the company’s true views.

Do read the whole thing.

Based on selective exposure and reinforcing spirals model perspectives, we examined the reciprocal relationship between Facebook news use and polarization using national 3-wave panel data collected during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Over the course of the campaign, we found media use and attitudes remained relatively stable. Our results also showed that Facebook news use was related to a modest over-time spiral of depolarization. Furthermore, we found that people who use Facebook for news were more likely to view both pro- and counter-attitudinal news in each wave. Our results indicated that counter-attitudinal news exposure increased over time, which resulted in depolarization. We found no evidence of a parallel model, where pro-attitudinal exposure stemming from Facebook news use resulted in greater affective polarization.

That is from Beam, Hutchens, and Hmielowski.  I thank an anonymous correspondent for the pointer.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

My radical proposal is therefore for the federal government to pre-empt as much occupational licensing as is possible. That’s right, these functions would be taken away from the state and local governments.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect the federal bureaucracy to usher in the reign of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics. But the federal regulatory process would likely pay less heed to local special interests, and it would produce a more homogenized and less idiosyncratic body of regulatory law more geared toward the most important cases, such as medicine and child care. The federal government is less likely than many state and local governments to obsess over licensing rules for fortune tellers, florists and athletic trainers.

A federal approach to these regulations would also bring standardization and uniformity across state lines, making it easier to move from one part of the country to another, and helping restore the great American tradition of mobility. As it stands now, imagine yours is a military family and you are transferred every few years or so, and your spouse works in a profession that would require relicensing. What justification could there be for such a hardship and inconvenience?

I consider how legally difficult this would be, and toward the end I argue:

If my idea sounds too ambitious, a smaller first step against anti-competitive licensing would have state governments pre-empt requirements at the city level, as Tennessee did last year. That doesn’t raise major constitutional issues, and at least it limits the possibility that American cities become a crazy patchwork of mobility-limiting interventions.

Keep in mind that the alternative to my suggestion is not the status quo but rather a regime where occupational licensing becomes progressively worse at multiple levels of government.

Do read the whole thing.

I think the chances of a populist land grab in South Africa (never very high) have actually gone down over the past few months. Look at the ANC’s actions during its 24 years in power, not its rhetoric. Many bad policies for sure, but never anything close to radically populist, of the sort that would seriously scare the financial markets. Destruction of the (well entrenched and sophisticated) property rights system would certainly do that. So it’s unlikely to happen.

The only time there seemed to be a risk of edging in that direction was when Zuma and his faction started seriously losing support (2016-17). They responded by ratcheting up the populist and racist rhetoric (“white monopoly capital” etc), but ultimately it didn’t work. They lost, and power in the ANC has shifted back to the more market friendly centrists, typified by Ramaphosa.

That’s why I think the risks have gone down (since Zuma was ousted), despite the recent parliamentary vote to “expropriate without compensation”. The sound bite plays well to a certain audience, as other commenters have noted, but I agree it’s mostly just signaling. When you look at the details it’s not as scary as it sounds.

Firstly, they didn’t vote to do it, they voted to set up a committee to investigate doing it, subject to various caveats and constraints, e.g. must increase agricultural production and improve food security; there must be public and expert consultation; appropriate mechanisms, etc. It seems extremely unlikely that the ANC’s intention is to summarily expropriate all land without compensation, nor does it say that in the parliamentary motion or in any ANC policy statement (that is indeed the EFF’s position, but they have less than 10% electoral support). Far more likely is we’ll end up with some sort of watered down constitutional amendment that allows expropriation without compensation in certain defined and limited circumstances, but overall system of property rights remains intact for vast majority of land and other assets.

By the way, I suspect the most outsiders seriously underestimate the strength of South Africa’s constitution and supporting institutions. They have stood remarkably firm over the past few years in the face of concerted attempts by Zuma and his cronies to undermine them. Compared, for example, to a country like Turkey, whose constitution, judiciary, media and civil society have been crushed in the space of a few years by a similarly venal and power-deluded single politician.

That is from Greg.

Two Burundi officials have been imprisoned after the African country’s president was allegedly “roughed up” in a football match they organised.

President Pierre Nkurunziza is a ‘born-again’ evangelical Christian who spends much of his time travelling Burundi with his own team, Haleluya FC. He travels with his own choir, “Komeza gusenga”, which means “pray non-stop” in the local Kirundi language.

On 3 February, his team faced a side from the northern town of Kiremba.

Normally, the opposition is well aware they are playing against the country’s president, and it has been said they go easy in the games, even perhaps allowing Nkurunziza to score.

But as the Kiremba team contained Congolese refugees who did not know they were playing against Burundi’s president, they “attacked each time he had the ball and made him fall several times”, a witness told AFP.

Kiremba’s administrator Cyriaque Nkezabahizi and his assistant, Michel Mutama, were imprisoned on Thursday, the news agency reports.

AFP cited a judicial source as saying they had been arrested on charges of “conspiracy against the president”.

Here is more, via Ray Lopez.

Carl L asks: Address the scapegoating theory of René Girard in general, and its possible application to economics. Peter Thiel has repeatedly cited Girard as an important influence and has even said his theory was partly the reason he invested in Facebook.

From my idiosyncratic point of view, here are a few of Girard’s major contributions, noting that I am putting them into “stupid simple” language, rather than trying to communicate his nuances:

1. His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

2. Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.

3. Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process, due to scarcity.  The tech world, by the way, at least pretends to have found a solution to this in its extreme scalability of product; we’ll see how that pans out.

4. A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics, and partly summarized here: “Whereas external mediation does not lead to rivalries, internal mediation does lead to rivalries. But, metaphysical desire leads a person not just to rivalry with her mediator; actually, it leads to total obsession with and resentment of the mediator. For, the mediator becomes the main obstacle in the satisfaction of the person’s metaphysical desire. Inasmuch as the person desires to be his mediator, such desire will never be satisfied. For nobody can be someone else. Eventually, the person developing a metaphysical desire comes to appreciate that the main obstacle to be the mediator is the mediator himself.”

5. First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.

6. Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis.  These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.  You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.  Girard is also one of the best lenses for understanding the writings of bad and manipulative pundits.

7. Girard is of great use for understanding literature.  Try any Shakespearean play with “doubles,” Merchant of Venice, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (an all-time favorite), or Coetzee’s Disgrace, all Girardian to the core and very much illuminated by familiarity with his key ideas.  These are perhaps his most underrated contributions.  Shakespeare, by the way, is Girard’s most important precursor, also throw in the New Testament, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and maybe Montaigne.

What should you read by him?: Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Theatre of Envy.

Where is Girard weakest: His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.

How important is he?: If you had to pick twenty thinkers from the latter half of the 20th century, he is definitely one of them.  By the way, Foucault and Baudrillard might be the other French writers on that list.

A candidate in the race for a South Texas state House seat has reportedly received $87,500 in campaign donations — more than half of which is made up of deer semen.

The Dallas News reported Thursday that Ana Lisa Garza, a district court judge running a primary challenge against eight-term Democrat Ryan Guillen, has received $51,000 in in-kind donations to her campaign, listed as individual donations of frozen deer semen straws.

The containers are reportedly a common way for deer breeders in the state to donate to political campaigns. Garza’s campaign has valued the straws at $1,000 each.

Fred Gonzalez, a Texas deer breeder who serves as treasurer of the Texas Deer Association, told the Dallas News that the group’s political action committee has received more than $975,000 in deer semen donations since 2006, and has given more than $885,000 in the same period of time.

“Semen is a very common way for us to donate,” Gonzalez told the paper. “One collection on a buck could lead to 60 straws sometimes. If you have a desirable animal, it’s a way to bring value without breaking the bank.”

Straws from bucks named Bandit, Sweet Dreams and Gladiator Sunset were among the donations listed.

Here is the story, via Patrick and also Peter.

The Push on Netflix is a deeply disturbing replication of the Milgram Experiment. The question it asks is whether someone can quickly be convinced to commit a murder? Spoiler alert: yes. British mentalist Derren Brown and a cast of confederates create an evil version of the Truman Show. By taking an individual from one seemingly minor moral deviation–labeling meat canapes as vegetarian–to another, to another, Brown puts people in a situation where by the end of one hour they are so emotionally disoriented and stressed that they will try to commit a murder to relieve their tension.

If you had asked me yesterday whether I thought it would be ok to run the Milgram experiment again, I would have said yes, as science. Today, I am not sure. What Brown does to these people for our entertainment (?) is disgusting. I feel complicit in having watched. Yes, I know, I am writing about it. I’m not sure what to make of that either.

As far as I can tell, the experiment is real. I’d be happier if it were fake but the results are consistent with previous Milgram replications. But if it is real did we then watch attempted murder? I am reminded of Leo Katz’s, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds. If a man fires a gun aiming to kill but the gun is defective is it attempted murder? Surely, yes. If thinking it a deadly poison a man adulterates a drink with sugar is it attempted murder? What if a sincere believer in voodoo tries to kill by sticking pins in a doll?

Aside from the legal issues, what Brown does to the participants is awful. How will they live the rest of their lives? Jordan Peterson says that you cannot be a good person until you know how much evil you contain within you. Well the people Brown experiments on know the evil that they contain but will they become better people? Or will they break? Brown doesn’t seem to care.

In some sense, the subjects have consented. Months earlier they applied to be on a show but they were told that they had been rejected. Perhaps you think the participants figured it out. You will have to judge for yourself but it all happens so quickly that I don’t think that is plausible. Moreover, if you figured it out wouldn’t you want to be the hero rather than the prison guard directing the Jews to the ovens?

Does The Push have any socially redeeming value? I hope so. Phillip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment was so upset by his research that he started the Heroic Imagination Project, (I wrote about it here). The Heroic Imagination Project attempts to turn the issue around by asking what helps people to resist authority? And how can we train people under stress to draw on their heroic reserves? Netflix has shown us that the Heroic Imagination Project is sorely needed. Maybe next time Netflix can devote some of their considerable resources to helping us resist the push.

The National Assembly on Tuesday set in motion a process to amend the Constitution so as to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

The motion, brought by the EFF leader Julius Malema, was adopted with a vote of 241 in support, and 83 against.

The only parties who did not support the motion were the DA, Freedom Front Plus, Cope and the ACDP.

The matter will now be referred to the Constitutional Review Committee which must report back to Parliament by August 30.

That is from a South African website, and the story really does seem to be true.  Yet reputable Western outlets do not seem to have much interest in reporting on this, except for this piece on Quartz.

There has been more coverage of Cape Town possibly running out of water.  I do understand that foreign troubles often look worse from a distance, but still in an era when emerging economies have been booming, including in most of Africa, it is hard not to be put off by these developments.  I am not sure how to interpret the data quality issues, but it is not obvious that the median wage has increased since the fall of apartheid.